We’ve spent the past week, our last before school starts, with my sister and her family, taking the train from Connecticut to see Matilda and museums, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Yesterday, enroute from the subway to the Tenement Museum, we walked down Houston Street, blocks from my college apartment.
I lived in a walk-up apartment in the Italian South Village above Joe’s Dairy; Anthony, its owner, also lived in the building, but I only ever saw him with his hands in a huge pot of mozzarella. Most of the other tenants were elderly, and had inhabited their apartments the entirety of their adult lives. I kept time by the bells of St. Anthony’s, across the street; my living room faced its massive rose window. Most of my neighbors were parishioners there. Women from the building sat on the stoop and on folding chairs they set up on the sidewalk for portions of every day. Verdi, Puccini, Rossini – heard faintly through the ceiling in colder months – came in the open window like a living presence on warm days. That crumbling, mice-infested apartment was one of the best places I ever lived.
One of my nephews is a student in the city, with very different sets of experiences. My boys have accumulated an image treasury of their own that they draw from when New York comes up in conversation: weapons and armor at the Met, vanilla soft serve cones dipped in cherry from Mr. Softee trucks, Washington Square’s fountain on a hot day, the craziness of Times Square. They associate New York with lightning bugs; with pizza and movies with their cousins and a babysitter while we – their parents, aunts and uncles – head into the city for dinner, a cloud of perfume and lipstick, high-heels, silk ties and freshly shaven men.